December 28, 2008

The Discomfort Zone
Jonathan Franzen
Third Wednesday
Edited by Laurence W. Thomas
Submit: The Unofficial All-Genre Multimedia Guide to Submitting Short Prose
Produced by Jotham Burrello

Change We Can Believe In, In The Literary Sense -- When I finally abandoned Jonathan Franzen's essay collection, The Discomfort Zone, I recalled an inspired moment in Jotham Burrello's film, Submit, when C. Michael Curtis, of The Atlantic Monthly, glances a bit off-camera, sighs heavily and says, "We're interested chiefly in dynamic stories, stories in which something happens." Curtis' observation pops the pomposity balloon of our literary age, in which so much triteness passes for hip, ironic meaning. I was just about to toss the Franzen essays completely aside when the new issue of the literary journal, Third Wednesday, arrived, featuring my short story "Alamo." The story was accepted and published -- reason enough to rejoice in any writer's life -- but the story was accepted with a telling note from editor Laurence W. Thomas: "Short fiction is difficult, but your story has a beginning, middle, and end, things that too often don't appear so concisely in less than 1500 words. Plus that, the story has sex (hetero and gay), abuse, escapism, panhandling, survival, petty crime, and religion. One editor pointed out that change in the main character is missing, but another sees religious conversion as a possibility, though tempered with pragmatism. We'll see what the readers find." I now think of this helpful note much as I recall Curtis' sigh or my vague dissatisfaction with Franzen's essays: yes, "change" is what adds richness in writing, "change" is what adds hues to the colors, "change" is what drives any good story. And I (like other, better writers such as Franzen in these particular essays) run the risk of too often relying upon the detached flatness of irony as a literary crutch to activate a story rather than doing the bloody, artistic surgery necessary to reveal real change.

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